Saturday, December 18, 2010

The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack

"Burton! This is all your fault! Do what you're supposed to!"
- Spring Heeled Jack

              When Barry Hughart was writing his classic novel Bridge of Birds, he says that he had "A lot of cool ideas, but when I took a look at it, the book wasn't really about anything. So I put it in a drawer...and then it dawned on me-- this book should be about love. So it was, and the rest of them were, too." And that's the sense I get from Mark Hodder's book The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack-- it should have been about something. Oh, granted, the plot is fun, and there are a lot of great ideas, but it doesn't seem to have any grounding, which is kind of important to any plot. And it's a shame. A quick glance at the other reviews on this site would tell you I really should have liked this book a lot more than I did. The author is well-read and knows what he's doing, the steampunk ideas he integrates are really original, with eugenics and magic being mixed in with all the rest, but the way he presented things fell short and definitely didn't do justice to any of the concepts he was introducing. 
               I'll explain: The plot takes place in a Victorian England, but not the Victorian age we know so well. No, due to something happening, it has veered wildly off course. Eugenicists breed talking dogs and parakeets who relay messages, there are subway and elevated rail systems running throughout the country, and various other morally and ethically removed elements are becoming commonplace. Into this strange world walks our hero, Sir Richard Francis Burton, a man who has spent much time exploring abroad and has returned to debate his onetime friend, John Hanning Speke, over the source of the Nile, or at least is supposed to until Speke shoots himself in the face. Shortly after that, Burton is accosted by a man wearing springlike stilts on his feet, and shortly after that is offered the chance to become the King's Agent and figure out why London is being plagued by red-robed, spontaneously combusting werewolves. With him are poet and masochist Algernon Swinburne, the corpulent DI Trounce, and a rather bizarre cast of characters, almost all of whom are taken from British history. For some reason, the strange figure who assaulted Burton, a man nicknamed "Spring Heeled Jack", keeps talking about how the natural order of history is upset, and Burton must get to the bottom of all these mysteries to protect the crown and country.
               The problems with the book come in when the setting overwhelms the plot and characters. Mark Hodder has done himself a great disservice here, as in setting up his world as an alternate history to ours (the ultimate culprit is a time traveler who made one fatal mistake and is trying to reintegrate himself into existence) he has cast fictional versions of real people (with one major exception) to carry out his plots. Had this been an adventure story with characters completely separate from history, elements of it would not have been quite the same, but the setting would have been served better. Hodder obviously has a great deal of potential as a writer, but at the same time, his sense of play and his need to treat historical figures like his own personal action figures drags everything down. Burton is a fantastic protagonist, sharing his bloodline with such great fictional detectives as Sexton Blake and Sherlock Holmes with his mastery of disguise, mesmerism, and the sword; the problem lies in his being an actual person and thus being dwarfed by the setting at hand. Hodder wants to explore the future of this timeline and the people in it (Oscar Wilde shows up as a nine year old newsboy for almost no reason but to be there.), but seems to have less commitment to the plot. The book suffers for this in gross quantities, eventually toppling under the weight of its own cool ideas by the end (though the character of Isambard Kingdom Brunel as a massive steampunk robot octopus is actually kind of funny). 
               That isn't to say that the plot isn't interesting. While the first few chapters start off slowly, the first and third sections of the book are intriguing and gripping. Watching Burton and Swinburne run down leads in a succession of pub crawls and fights is a lot of fun to watch, and while the action flags, they are brief moments between a lot of truly fantastic seqences. The Battle of Old Ford (which makes up all of the climax) is handled not from the overhead perspective Stephen Hunt favors, but from a more personal level as Burton and Trounce smash and slice their way through the ground troops of the villainous Mr. Belljar (an orangutan with a brain in a jar on his head in a nice nod to Murders of the Rue Morgue and simultaneously '50s horror) and his army of sinister Libertines. The titular Spring-Heeled Jack is handled with just the right amount of pathos in his sections, and they would be interesting on their own, but in the end they serve mainly to slow the story to a crawl right before the big climactic airship (you knew that was coming) battle with Mr. Belljar and the bloated, two-brained grotesquerie that is Charles Darwin. The ending pathos and moral choice made by Burton are emotionally tugging, and the book even shines through in some moments with some pitch black humor. 
               I suppose the problem with the book is that Mark Hodder tried to write two books and smoosh them one, Burton and Swinburne must stop an evil and insane cabal in an adventure reminiscient of Mark Frost's The List of 7. In another, a time traveler must stop his ancestor from assassinating Queen Victoria, or alternately find some way to reintegrate himself into the timeline. While the interesting central idea is what makes the book turn and gives it focus, the problem is that the two halves don't really fit together. One should be separate from the other entirely. Put together, both elements which would have been strong on their own are weaker until the final scene, where Burton (after being told he has to make a choice) decides "I like the world I live in now.", a moment both touching and intriguing in its own way. Better yet, perhaps he should have tried to find an illustrator and do a half-guidebook, half-story novel about the way his Victorian society is different from now, a la James Gurney's excellent (so excellent George Lucas repeatedly poached from it) Dinotopia. Instead, what we get is a work chock-full of ideas, but none of which connect.
                   In the end, the book is definitely worth a read if you enjoy steampunk, or even just strange science fiction or fantasy literature. The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack isn't as good as, say, The Court of the Air or The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters (which handled a similar story much better, though it had its own set of problems), but while I would caution one not to buy it, I do give it a mild recommendation. It's an okay book, though not good or great, and it makes me want to see more of Mark Hodder's work, though hopefully separating his writing from his history. 

Next Week: In what seems to have become Steampunk Month (despite that slight sidestep for the Richard Kadrey novel), the more grotesque and insane side of the genre is shown with one of China Mieville's New Crobuzon novels, Perdido Street Station, or perhaps The Scar. See you then.

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